What quitting social media, internet for 3 months feels like

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What quitting social media, internet for 3 months feels like

In the summer of 2018, British author Johann Hari planned to take a three-month “digital detox” to see if he could survive without the technological conveniences so pervasive in modern life. But before he even switched off, the complications began.

Just buying a phone without access to the internet proved to be almost impossible. A Target salesman in Boston suggested a phone with “super-slow internet. You could probably get your email but you wouldn’t…”

“…Email is still the internet,” Hari interrupted. “I am going away for three months, specifically so I can be totally offline.”

The Target guy wasn’t the only one befuddled by Hari’s plans. All his friends “couldn’t seem to process what I was saying,” Hari writes in his new book, “Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention — and How to Think Deeply Again” (Crown), out Jan. 25. “The idea of going offline completely seemed to them so bizarre that I had to explain it again and again.”

But after feeling overwhelmed by social media and constant news alerts, Hari insisted on the experiment.

Johann Hari gave up his smartphone and laptop and moved to a remote part of Cape Cod with no internet access for three months.
Johann Hari gave up his smartphone and laptop and moved to a remote part of Cape Cod with no internet access for three months.
Courtesy of Johann Hari

“I did it in desperation,” he writes. “I felt that if I stripped everything back for a time, I might start to be able to glimpse the changes we could all make in a more sustainable way.”

On average, we spend around three hours and 15 minutes on our phones every day, and we touch them roughly 2,617 times per day, according to research firm Dscout. But rather than improve our lives, our constant connectivity seems to have made them worse.

‘I did it in desperation. I felt if I stripped everything back, I could find changes we could all make in a more sustainable way.’

Johann Hari, on why he went on a digital detox

Our attention spans are shorter than ever, with most people only able to stay focused on a single task for an average of two minutes and eleven seconds, according to researchers at the University of California, Irvine. And once we get interrupted — by our email alerts chirping for attention, social media apps beeping with updates — it takes at least 23 minutes to get that focus back.

Hari, now 42, rented a small place in Provincetown, Mass., at the northern tip of Cape Cod. He didn’t have a partner at the time, or a full-time job or kids, so taking the break affected nobody but himself. He eventually found a cellphone without internet access, a device called the Jitterbug that’s “designed for extremely old people, and it doubles as a medical emergency device,” he writes. 

On average, we spend around three hours and 15 minutes on our phones every day, while our attention spans grow ever shorter.
On average, we spend around three hours and 15 minutes on our phones every day, while our attention spans grow ever shorter.
Getty Images/iStockphoto

A friend loaned him an old laptop with no WiFi connectability “so that if I woke up at 3am and my resolve cracked and I tried to get online, I wouldn’t be able to do it, no matter how hard I tried,” Hari writes.

Hari spent his first week in a “haze of decompression,” he writes, sitting in cafes and reading books, sometimes talking to strangers and often just being alone with his thoughts. He also felt something he hadn’t experienced in years: Calm. 

It was a weird sensation given that all he’d done was “leave two lumps of metal behind,” Hari writes. It was as if his phone and laptop were “screaming, colicky babies, and now the babies had been handed over to a babysitter, and their screaming and vomiting had vanished from view.”

But he also experienced panic. What emails was he neglecting? What Twitter trending topics had he missed? What texts were waiting to be read? There were days when Hari would instinctively reach into a pocket for his phone, like he was scratching a phantom limb.

IT ADDS UP: By 2007, the amount of information flooding the internet equalled 174 newspapers a day. That number has roughly doubled every 2.5 years — meaning that today’s info equals nearly 700 newspapers a day.
IT ADDS UP: By 2007, the amount of information flooding the internet equalled 174 newspapers a day. That number has roughly doubled every 2.5 years — meaning that today’s info equals nearly 700 newspapers a day.
Getty Images/iStockphoto

A total of 31 percent of US adults admit that they go online “almost constantly,” according to a 2021 report from Pew Research — from 21 percent in 2015 — partly because there’s more data out there to consume. Back in 1986, “if you added up all the information being blasted at the average human being — TV, radio, reading — it amounted to 40 newspapers’ worth of information every day,” writes Hari. By 2007, that number had risen to around 174 newspapers a day and has “roughly doubled every 2.5 years,” according to Martin Hilbert, a University of Southern California professor who helped determine the increase.

By that calculation, today’s information equals nearly 700 newspapers a day.

“It’s too much information for any biological brain to consume,” Hilbert told The Post. So instead, “we only read short snippets of different content. Seventy percent of tweeted headlines are not even read by those who (re)tweet them.”

We now read like overstuffed diners at an all-you-can-eat buffet, piling our plates high and not really tasting or enjoying any of it. The share of American adults who say they read at least one book for pleasure over the course of 12 months has declined to its lowest level ever — from 61 percent in 1992 to less than 53 percent in 2017, the last year figures were available. Reading for pleasure has dropped from 28 to 16 minutes per day among Americans from 2003 to 2018; meanwhile, we have increased the time we spend playing games and using computers for leisure to 28 minutes per day as of 2018.

American adults who say they read at least one book for pleasure over the course of 12 months has declined to its lowest level ever.
American adults who say they read at least one book for pleasure over the course of 12 months has declined to its lowest level ever.
Getty Images/EyeEm

Why does reading books matter? Aside from reducing stress and prolonging life — 30 minutes a day can add two years to your life-span — reading books “trains us to read in a particular way, in a linear fashion, focused on one thing for a sustained period,” Hari writes. 

Anne Mangen, a professor of literacy at the University of Stavanger in Norway, told Hari that we’re more likely to “scan and skim” when we read on screens. We don’t focus deeply, but instead just cherry-pick for the most relevant information, prioritizing quantity over quality.

At the beginning of his digital detox, Hari was stuck in this mindset.

“I was scanning Charles Dickens the way you might scan a blog for vital information,” he writes. “My reading was manic and extractive: Okay, I’ve got it, he’s an orphan. What’s your point? I could see this was foolish, but I couldn’t stop.”

But then he started to slow down. He would buy three newspapers every morning and read them, and then “I wouldn’t know what happened in the news until the next day,” Hari writes. “Instead of a constant blast running all through my waking life, I got one in-depth, curated guide to what happened, and then I could turn my attention to other things.”

once we get interrupted — by our email alerts chirping for attention, social media apps beeping with updates — it takes at least 23 minutes to get our focus back.
Once we get interrupted by our email alerts chirping for attention, social media apps beeping with updates — it takes at least 23 minutes to get our focus back.
Shutterstock/BigTunaOnline

In late June of 2018, a gunman murdered five people at a newspaper office in Maryland. Normally, during such a tragedy, Hari would have been glued to social media, texting with friends the moment it happened. Instead, he didn’t even hear about it until the day after the massacre, and he knew “within ten minutes all the details I needed to know, from a dead tree,” Hari writes. 

“My normal mode of consuming news, I realized, induced panic; this new style induced perspective.”

As time went on, Hari realized how little he really needed the internet. Six friends had his phone number, so he could be reached in case of an emergency. If he needed medical care, he could call 911. If he was curious about something, he went to the local library. If he wanted to know about the weather tomorrow, he just asked the locals at the downtown cafe.

The biggest thing he missed was social media. But not for keeping up with friends and colleagues. “I would look at Twitter and Instagram to see how many followers I had,” he admits of his most frequent internet habit. “I didn’t look at the feed, the news, the buzz — just my own stats. It was as if I was saying to myself, ‘See? More people are following you. You matter.’”

After his detox, Hari expected to be flooded with emails, but, in fact, “the world had accepted my absence with a shrug,” he writes.
After his detox, Hari expected to be flooded with emails, but, in fact, “the world had accepted my absence with a shrug,” he writes.
Courtesy of Johann Hari

When he returned to the connected world in the last week of August 2018, Hari expected his inbox to be overflowing with emails, from employers and friends writing with urgent requests, even though he’d left an auto-reply explaining that he was totally uncontactable for the summer. Instead, he found almost nothing. It took him an hour or two to read everything he’d missed over three months.

“The world had accepted my absence with a shrug,” he writes.

Today, Hari isn’t a totally changed man after his digital detox. But he is now more hesitant to let his attention be ruled by online distractions.

“In my life before I fled to Cape Cod, I lived in a tornado of mental stimulation,” he writes. “I would never go for a walk without listening to a podcast or talking on the phone. I would never wait two minutes in a store without looking at my phone or reading a book. The idea of not filling every minute with stimulation panicked me, and I found it weird when I saw other people not doing it.”

Cover of "Stolen Focus."
Hari spent three months without internet access.

He’s since adopted a few tools to make sure he doesn’t fall back into those bad habits. He has a timed plastic safe, where he locks away his phone for at least four hours every day. And he takes at least half of the year off social media, “and I announce I am doing it each time, so I’d feel like a fool if I pop up again a week later,” he told The Post.

These techniques, he explains, are called “pre-commitment,” a way to “lock in your intentions and prevent yourself from cracking later.”

It’s easier said than done, especially for people with jobs requiring them to be connected to the internet. Locking your phone in a safe isn’t going to work for anybody who needs to return texts from their boss.

“There’s no point giving people sweet self-help lectures about the benefits of unplugging if we don’t change the way we live to make it practically possible,” Hari told The Post. He points to France, which enacted a legal “right to disconnect” law in 2017. 

“Every worker has a right to written work hours, and a right to not check their phone or email outside work hours,” he says. “That’s just one example of collective changes we can make as a society that will radically improve our focus.”

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